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Panama Art Galleries - Signs of Progress

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Written by Matt   
Wednesday, 24 September 2008 13:42
Panama art galleriesWe've seen the signs of gentrification before in places like Soho: ramshackle kitsch shops giving way to trendy restaurants and bars giving way to upper class patrons "re-defining" a once red zone neighborhood. It's a common sight in Casco Viejo today, ambulance specifically with artists beginning to occupy spaces once considered dilapidated and not fit for business. These trendsetters create amenities consumed by the bourgeoisie and act as clear gauges for the economic status of this burgeoning district. The blocks of decrepit buildings in Casco Viejo home to squatters are far from meeting City building code regulations: a fact that has kept many tourists and businesspeople away. However the neighborhood is starting to see an injection of life brought by a small troop of artists who have fled the remainder of Panama City along with the yuppification that entails.

The logistics of running an art gallery make it a business model much more prone to succeed than, say a restaurant or a bar; low overhead and high-ticket sales being the primary factors, allowing it to weather the occasional down month (or in this case down season). And while Casco Viejo's art galleries cater almost exclusively to foreigners visiting the area, certain gallery owners are noticing a shift.

"Just recently we've begun to see Panamanians buying pieces too," says Rosina Ynzenga of Karavan Gallery. "While 95% of our sales are to North Americans and Europeans on vacation, over the past few months a number of locals too have stepped inside and shown their interest." Now integrating pieces of local art on their shelves, owners like Ynzenga, a Spanish photojournalist, believe the art culture to be an integral part of Casco Viejo's growth and identity.

Art galleries often give two good indicators of economic transformation in developing neighborhoods. At the beginning, they are the litmus tests for life, optimism, and success: their owners acting as scouts testing the feasibility of living and working in a less-than-popular area. However, upon finding success or growth in a place like Casco Viejo, the first newcomers oftentimes get priced out.

Where do they go? They tend to relocate to nearby areas where prices are cheaper and the cycle can begin again. Without a doubt, this process will migrate outwards from the tip of Casco Viejo into the now-ill-considered streets of 15th and upwards.

This indicator (of artists leaving a neighborhood) sends a message that reasonable rents and pioneering facets of life are gone for good. It is also a process that runs parallel to the real estate industry; with art galleries (who took the risk of setting up shop) playing the role of pacifier to real estate guys.

To delay this threat, local gallery owners like Paula Figueroa Botero, co-owner of Aequilibrium Gallery, have bound renewal clauses into their rental contracts. "We have the legal right to rent this commercial space for one year," stated Botero. "After that year, we maintain the rights to rent while adopting a maximum 10% price increase by the owner." These sorts of precautions seem fair in a business sense.

But also waiting in the wings is the threat of displacement for locals in Casco Viejo, some of whom have spent upwards of fifty years living in the same home. While not new to urban communities in New York or L.A., Casco Viejo will soon have to prepare (for the first time in a long time) to deal with the looming possibility of disenfranchisement posed by capitalism and development---a threat very few would have have imagined twenty years ago.

While Casco Viejo (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is currently evolving as one concept, its future may have something else in store. Many of its artists are predicted to push the geographic limits of "hip," which will morph Casco Viejo into a series of micro-neighborhoods spreading through areas currently thought to be no fly zones. But for the time being, the areas art gallery owners seem content to stay put and enjoy their time in the sun. "We do good business," says Botero. "But in reality, this is just the beginning."

Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Merced , September 25, 2008
This was exactly how I remembered Soho - the artists are a sign of better or worse things to come.
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art: yeeee!
written by Lamer , January 07, 2009
Excellent article!!! And it's just what I needed (I had asked questions about the art scene in Panama City in a wrong section). I have been working in the art business and also in art education for the past 20 years. Last year, I contemplated the idea of opening a small business and educational venture in the art sector in Panama City, but other priorities put a stop to that thought. I want to own the space as opposed to renting it, so I postponed my plans in the hope that prices in Casco will go down like the rest of the real estate market in 2009-2010. I missed my dream house-art gallery in Casco anyway, so I'll have to spot another one in the future. Anyway, keep us posted! ...I hope you are not deserting the camp!
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 September 2008 13:47